Meet the “God Squad” Defending Public Nativity Displays
“Our country was founded on freedom of religion, not freedom from religion,” says Jim Finnegan, the founder of American Nativity Scene. “I am not intimidated by people who say otherwise… It is rewarding to stand up to bullies.”
Using the precedent-setting court case Grutzmacher vs Chicago Building Commission from 1989, which protects the rights of private citizens to display nativity scenes in public places, American Nativity Scene offers nativity scene figures to applicants free of charge.
An anonymous benefactor, who is committed to keeping Christ in Christmas, provides the figures, which include an angel, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus and are two to three feet in height. All recipients need to do is build a wooden crèche to hold the Holy Family and to coordinate the details of the public location.
“The power of people’s will”
Finnegan’s goal is for American Nativity Scenes to be displayed within or near capitol buildings and in other highly visible public locations in every state. Currently, nativity sets are in 13 states in various parks and public spaces.
Finnegan estimates that American Nativity Scene ships at least 150 sets of nativity figures each year. In return for the free figures, the group requests that recipients take certain specific steps as part of installing their nativity scene, including planning an opening ceremony during which children place the Christ child in the crib.
“The beauty of the people who want this (the nativity scene) in their community is powerful,” says Finnegan. “These [scenes] can go to the poorest of the poor, and there are always people who come forward who want to build the crèche and to honor Christ in this way.
“The only cost is in terms of time and conviction,” he continues. “I never cease to be amazed by the power of people’s will.”
The project sounds simple enough, but as Finnegan puts it, “there are always some groups that will show up” to protest a depiction of Christ’s birth.
He explains that displays honoring Satan and promoting atheism continue to show up each year at the nativity scene mounted in downtown Chicago, for example. “If anything, these types of things work in our favor,” Finnegan says. “It just shows the character of people.
“As long as you are part of a private group of citizens, it is your legal right to place a nativity scene on public property. And we have lawyers from the Thomas More Society who work for us pro bono, should anyone need any legal help.”
Daley Plaza Nativity
The Daley Plaza Nativity Scene, in Chicago, which features life-sized figures and is on display from the Saturday after Thanksgiving through the Saturday after Christmas, is one of the largest nativity displays in the world. A dedicated group of volunteers, dubbed the “God Squad,” offers their time and resources to store and to transport the figures to and from downtown Chicago.
The cost of maintaining the large painted figures, which include, in addition to the Holy Family, animals and the three kings, is covered through private donations.
Although Chicago has had a public outdoor nativity display for as long as anyone can remember, it was not always located in Daley Plaza. For many years, it was located inside nearby City Hall. However, in 1985 – just a year after a landmark Supreme Court ruling in favor of outdoor nativity displays on public property – the American Jewish Congress took legal action to have the scene banned from that location.
After hearing the news, a private group of Chicagoans headed by William Grutzmacher and Rev. Hiram C. Crawford spearheaded an effort to have a nativity scene displayed outside in Daley Plaza. Despite the fact that Grutzmacher applied for and received a permit for the crèche, employees of the Public Building Commission, prompted by efforts by American Jewish Congress, ACLU, and American Atheists, started dismantling it.
However, news cameras captured the scene and soon knowledge of the beleaguered outdoor nativity scene travelled around the nation and around the world (like the more recent case of a ban in Wadena, Minnesota). Finnegan recalls that people in other countries were stunned that something like that could happen in America.
Eventually, the case landed in court for the landmark decision, and the nativity scene has been on view in Daley Plaza every Christmas since. In 1987, when Grutzmacher retired and moved away from Chicago, he asked Finnegan to help oversee the annual nativity scene display.
“There are many people have helped fight this fight before me,” Finnegan, a retired salesman, says. “I am just grateful to have the opportunity to practice my faith.”
Finnegan and his wife of 58 years, Phyllis, have seven children and 29 grandchildren. Nativity scenes have become an important part of the Finnegan family’s Christmas celebration.
He is particularly proud of the nativity scene that is on display each year at a public park in Arlington Heights, Illinois, the town where he raised his family. He calls the inclusion of the Holy Family in a holiday display that previously included only secular, commercialized representations of Christmas “one of the happiest moments of my life.”
The Next Generation
In recent years, Finnegan, who is 82, has turned over much of the running of the Chicago Nativity Scene project to his son-in-law Ed O’Malley. However, he is still very involved in both that effort and with American Nativity Scene.
His phone number is even on the sign that informs Daley Plaza visitors that the Chicago display is coordinated entirely by volunteers, and Finnegan says he receives many calls of thanks over the holiday season.
“When you look at what is happening in the world today – the violence, the lack of respect for life – it is important to teach your children and your grandchildren what is right and good and wholesome,” says Finnegan.
“Our country was founded on religious freedom, and what we have done and continue to do is to show what you can accomplish when you continue to work for that freedom.”
The 2016 Chicago Nativity Scene will be dedicated on Saturday Nov. 26 at 10 a.m. at Daley Plaza. The event is open to the public. For more information, visit www.chicagonativityscene.com/.
If you would like to receive nativity figures to display in a crèche in a public place in your community this Christmas, here are the American Nativity Scene guidelines:
- Email a request to American Nativity Scene.
- Form a small committee of people to handle responsibilities of displaying a nativity scene in a public place in your town.
- Request a permit from your local government for your private group to place and maintain the nativity scene either within or just outside a public location during the Christmas season. (The suggested period is the Saturday after Thanksgiving to the Saturday after Christmas.) Your local government likely will require you to have a sign and to have insurance coverage.
- Hire a local carpenter to build a simple wooden crèche to house the Holy Family. Size and installation details are on the American Nativity Scene website.
- Arrange for transportation for the nativity scene to and from the display site and for its storage during the rest of the year.
- Plan a ceremony for the opening day of your nativity scene and notify the media of the event.
- Arrange for children to place the Christ child in the crib (provided) at the opening ceremony.